Jamie Benn

Stanley Cup Final Preview: X-factors for Bruins, Blues

Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

With all of this time off until Round 4 begins, PHT’s covering all the skirmishes of Bruins – Blues.

Of course, the danger in drilling deep into the numbers and potential matchups is that you might obsess over “on paper” and forget certain human factors that might swing things as much as a hot power play or a shutdown defensive performance.

Let’s consider some of the X-Factors of this series, and no, mutant superheroes are not involved … although Patrice Bergeron might have Wolverine’s healing powers.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The inevitable rest vs. rust question

Most of the time, I’d roll my eyes and make other dismissive gestures about rest vs. rust.

In many cases, rust is merely used as an easy way to explain a defeat that has more complex, existential explanations. After all, it’s easier to cope with thinking “Ah, if only we were on the top of our game” rather than considering the possibility that the other team just mopped the floor with your team.

The Bruins’ 11-day rest does kind of push the envelope, though.

Chiefly, will Tuukka Rask cool off after not tracking pucks in a playoff situation for almost two weeks? He was absolutely on fire, and all the scrimmages in the world can only do so much to prepare you for a Blues team that’s looked like a buzzsaw at times during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

All that tape

Maybe rest vs. rust should morph into three r’s, as you can add another factor: research.

While the Bruins didn’t know if they’d face the Blues or Sharks until Tuesday, May 21, Bruce Cassidy and his crew have had all that extra time to scout for weaknesses and tendencies regarding their opponents. If their video staff is really on point, you’d think that Boston may enjoy some subtle schematic advantage from getting extra opportunities to break down tape.

Interestingly, while rust might be a challenge for Bruins goalie Rask, that additional research could present a hurdle for rookie Blues netminder Jordan Binnington.

Rookies face challenges in adapting to the NHL, yet the reverse is worth noting: opponents haven’t had as many reps to expose weaknesses. That’s especially true in the exhausting grind of the postseason. If Binnington has some flaws to his game, the Bruins have had the rare luxury of gaining more opportunities to find those issues. For all we know, a few quirks could equal a tide-turning goal or two; maybe the Bruins can score on a wraparound where Jamie Benn and Roope Hintz barely didn’t in Game 7 of Round 2?

Health

All things considered, the Bruins and Blues seem as healthy as anyone can reasonably expect after three rugged rounds of playoff hockey.

Still, the best reasonable expectation for playing at this level into June is that you’re basically wearing so many ice packs it looks like you’re in a full suit of armor.

Frankly, teams aren’t particularly eager to divulge injury information, so we can only speculate about how healthy Zdeno Chara really will be if he can play in Game 1, and so on. So, yes, it’s interesting to see a sparse list of injuries beyond, say, Vince Dunn, but we really don’t know who’s playing at a level far below full-strength.

And, yes, 11 days provides a lot of time to heal — relatively speaking. Plenty of injuries suffered this time of year require longer than that, however, if they don’t demand surgery altogether. For two physical teams, the behind the scenes work of training staffs could be pivotal, even if they do everything they can to keep the rest of us oblivious about such ups and downs.

Bruins’ power play

Click here for a full breakdown of special teams, but it needed to be said: Boston’s power play is so powerful, it could swing the entire series.

Shenanigans

One thing that could bleed into the special teams discussion is if/when the teams get under each others’ skin.

Will Brad Marchand bait the Blues into taking foolish penalties, or might he shoot himself in the foot in trying to do just that? Does David Backes have some zingers regarding the team he once captained?

It seems like the Blues’ power play has gotten back on track, with at least one power-play goal in three straight games, and four during that span. So while Boston’s man advantage is the most dangerous, St. Louis could also make the Bruins pay if Marchand’s antics become a double-edged sword.

***

Ultimately, the 2019 Stanley Cup Final will come down to which players deliver, and if the coaches can put those players in the right situations to succeed. Rask and Binnington both have the capability to turn the series on its head with great play, too.

Don’t be surprised if the above X-factors make an impact, too, though. I mean, what’s really even the point if there are no shenanigans?

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has the better forwards?

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

One of the best lines in hockey against a team that has made it a mission to shut down the opposition’s best. It makes for quite the chess match over the coming couple of weeks.

So, which of these two teams has a better group of forwards? Let’s take a look.

CENTERS

The votes for the Selke Trophy have already come in, but we’re about to watch two candidates for this year’s award go head-to-head in what should be a colossal battle between the top two-way centers in the game.

Patrice Bergeron and Ryan O'Reilly is the type of mouthwatering matchup you don’t always get to see in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Both have been instrumental to their team’s success so far, and both are coming off big games to close out their respective series.

Bergeron makes up one-third of the best line in hockey at the moment. He, along with Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, has steered the Bruins to where they are, offensively. Bergeron has eight goals and 13 points, including a two-goal, one-assist effort in Game 4 against the Carolina Hurricanes to earn the series sweep in the Eastern Conference Final. Bergeron is 59.3 percent in faceoffs this postseason. Bergeron is third among centers with a 56.24 CF% — an elite number.

Having an old faithful in David Krejci certainly helps in the second-line spot. Krejci’s experience will play a big role for Boston, and the 33-year-old is producing, coming into Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on a six-game point streak and 14 points in 17 games so far.

Then comes Boston’s depth centers in Charlie Coyle (12 points) and Sean Kuraly (five points). Coyle’s addition to the Bruins didn’t pan out right away in Boston but he’s been exactly what the Bruins needed down the middle in the playoffs. Kuraly’s just been a pleasant surprise, with the fourth-liner chipping in nearly 16 minutes a night.

O’Reilly’s coming off a three-assist outing in Game 6 to finish off the San Jose Sharks and is average 21:26 per game, which is tops among Blues forwards. He trails Bergeron significantly in the faceoff circle (48.7 percent) and possession (48.45 CF%).

Brayden Schenn scored his first goal since Game 5 of Round 1 against Winnipeg in their final game of the series against San Jose. He’s been a hard-nosed player in these playoffs but his production could use a bump. Tyler Bozak has two game-winning goals and 10 points and Oskar Sundqvist, like Kuraly, has been deployed often in his fourth-line role.

ADVANTAGE: Bruins. It’s hard to bet against a spine of a team that includes Bergeron and Krejci in the playoffs. The experience factor is massive, and so too is the play. Coyle has been solid in his third-line role and Kuraly has been one of the surprises of the playoffs. St. Louis is closer than some might give them credit for, but Boston has perhaps the best center in the game.

WINGERS

Is the Vladimir Tarasenko production we saw in the Western Conference Final the real deal?

It matters when comparing each team’s two top-line wingers.

Both Marchand and Pastrnak have put up some incredible numbers in this postseason. When they’re producing, Boston is winning. Marchand has 18 points in 17 games and Pastrnak 15 in the same span. Both have combined for four game-winning goals. For the most part, we know what we’re getting from those two.

Jaden Schwartz has been one of the best goal scorers in these playoffs with 12 (that’s one more than he scored in 69 regular-season games), including a hat trick in a 5-0 shutout in Game 5 against the Sharks. Schwartz has come up big throughout the postseason. Schwartz, Schenn and Tarasenko terrorized the Sharks in the WCF, with Tarasenko’s six-game point streak helping lead the charge. As long as the latter doesn’t pull off a disappearing act, they could throw quite the wrench into this series.

St. Louis’ depth in these playoffs has been one of its glowing attributes. Sammy Blais has carved out a top-six role opposite David Perron. Patrick Maroon has been the hometown hero and has played well, as too has Robert Thomas. And Alex Steen has embraced his place on the fourth line with great results.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The same can be said about the Bruins, of course. Marcus Johansson has quietly had a solid postseason and with teams focusing much time and effort stopping the top line, he’s been able to provide several key moments for the Bruins, including the series-clinching goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs and a goal in their Game 6 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets. David Backes won’t be short of motivation against his old team. The Bruins have turned to him when the chips were stacking against them and he’s been a game-changer at times.

ADVANTAGE: Blues. The depth down the wings in St. Louis is very good. That’s not to say Boston’s isn’t, but there’s a bit bigger of a drop off once you get past their dominating top line. The Blues are where they are because of contributions up and down the lineup.

OVERALL

At this stage, both teams have made it here on merit. There’s no luck involved with reaching the Stanley Cup Final. Both teams have their set of strengths up front. Both top lines are playing at a high level at the moment. Both teams have considerable depth they can lean on.

ADVANTAGE: Bruins (by a hair). No team in the East has been able to contain Boston’s top line, which will win games on its own. If the Blues become the first, they will hoist their first Stanley Cup. If not, like teams before them, it may not matter what the other nine guys on the bench can do.

That said, the Blues were able to contain Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele. They were able to contain Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. And they were able to be effective against Logan Couture and Co.

It’s tough to bet against Boston. Then again, it’s tough to think the Blues can’t handle it. Boston gets the edge based on experience, but the Blues are right there.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Pietrangelo remains under-the-radar star for Blues

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The playoffs set the stage for unlikely heroes, and also for superstars to be superstars. Sometimes, there are also those moments when someone more under-the-radar draws more mainstream attention.

Strangely enough, St. Louis Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo‘s postseason work seems to fit in his larger story of an All-Star-level player whose strong play deserves more attention.

Through 15 games, Pietrangelo has two goals and 10 assists for 12 points. Jaden Schwartz (13 points) is the only player on the Blues who’s generated more, and Ryan O'Reilly (11) ranks as the only other St. Louis player in double digits.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Pietrangelo doesn’t overpower opponents like Brent Burns, but he’ll be a key part of the Blues’ efforts to win Game 3 on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; stream here) in a Round 3 series that’s currently tied 1-1. Pietrangelo’s bringing potent offense and a capable possession game to the table, and Pietrangelo’s been a workhorse, comfortably leading the Blues in ice time with 25:35 minutes per contest.

And, hey, he’s bringing a fire to the ice, as you can see when he broke his stick following Logan Couture‘s shorthanded goal from the Blues’ eventual Game 2 win:

Circling back to Pietrangelo’s ice time for a minute, it seems like the rise of another defenseman is also helping him find another gear, as Pietrangelo’s rising with big blueliner Colton Parayko.

Earlier during Pietrangelo’s playoff career, he was probably called upon to do too much. Pietrangelo averaged more than 28 minutes per game during the Blues’ last two playoff runs, and Pietrangelo peaked at 30:15 minutes per night during the Blues loss in a six-game series against Chicago back in 2013-14.

As another strong right-handed defenseman, Parayko’s allowed the Blues to relax Pietrangelo’s minutes, and also his matchups. Checking Natural Stat Trick’s 5-on-5 numbers, Parayko was the one drawing Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin more often in the Stars series, and Blake Wheeler‘s line more often against Winnipeg. Those matchups have been a little more unpredictable so far against the Sharks, but it wouldn’t be one bit surprising if Craig Berube tries to deploy Parayko more in defensive situations and Pietrangelo more when there’s a scoring opportunity.

(Although the Sharks’ depth makes hard matching less lucrative – Tomas Hertl or Logan Couture is a pick your poison proposition – and Parayko can bring some offense to the table, too.)

Overall, the Blues have some issues. Their power play needs fixing. Jay Bouwmeester logging 22:37 per night in 2019 isn’t … ideal. And, even if everything is clicking, the Sharks are the type of opponent who can make strengths look like weaknesses.

Pietrangelo remains a difference-maker, whether people notice or not, especially when you can rotate him with Parayko, another defenseman worthy of greater recognition.

Game 3 of Blues – Sharks takes place on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN; stream here).

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Stars have cap space to make big moves

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After years of being on a bargain contract, Tyler Seguin‘s finally going to get paid – to the tune of $9.85 million per year – starting next season.

With Jamie Benn already at $9.5M per pop, and the two once being called bleeping horsebleep by a high-ranking executive, you’d think that the Dallas Stars would be headed for a painful cap crunch this offseason.

As it turns out … nope, not really. The Stars actually stare down a Texas-sized opportunity to surround Benn and Seguin with some premier talent, whether they use a surprisingly robust amount of cap space to land free agents or if the Stars target yet another splashy trade. (They went the trade route to brain the Bruins out of Seguin, after all.)

Let’s take a look at the Stars’ larger situation to see how promising it could be, with copious help from Cap Friendly’s listings.

[For another breakdown of a Central team with promise, consider the Avalanche’s situation.]

A ton of bad money clearing away, or soon to clear

Jason Spezza isn’t as washed up as his lowest moments would make you think but … $7.5M was an agonizing cap number to hang on him, nonetheless. When you look at Spezza’s $7.5M basically being forwarded to Seguin’s bank account, it makes that raise more palatable, and also is a first step in understanding how the Stars are in a pretty solid salary situation.

The Stars will also see Marc Methot‘s $4.9M evaporate, along with the $1.5M buyout to Antti Niemi. After 2019-20, they can say goodbye to the mistake that was the Martin Hanzal deal ($4.75M), assuming they don’t do something sooner.

Heading into the offseason, Cap Friendly estimates the Stars allocating a bit less than $60.8M to 15 players. If the cap ceiling reaches $83M, that gives the Stars approximately $22.2M to work with, and some decisions to make.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

To Zucc or not to Zucc?

There’s another salary expiring in the form of Mats Zuccarello‘s post-retention $3.1M, and the Stars face a riddle in deciding what to do with the near-instant cult hero.

On one hand, Zuccarello is rad, and easy to like. His creativity clearly opened things up for his linemates, at least once Zuccarello is healthy. There won’t be a ton of comparable options on the free agent market, and he seems interested in sticking around.

On the other hand, Zuccarello is 31, will turn 32 in September, and has dealt with some lousy injury luck. Allow me to jog your memory about Zuccarello suffering a skull fracture in 2015, an injury that briefly impaired his ability to speak. It’s pretty stunning that Zuccarello ever played professional hockey again after that injury, let alone playing such a high level.

So, again, Zucc is rad … but there are red flags. And then, of course, there are the conditions of that trade from the Rangers. If the Stars re-sign Zuccarello, they’d cough up a first-round pick to the Rangers, instead of a third-rounder.

Maybe the Stars should look at it as a win-win situation: you either bring back Zuccarello, or keep that first-rounder and reduce your risks? One thing seems clear: Stars fans already love him … and can you blame them?

[More on the Zuccarello dilemma.]

Old and new

Like the Avalanche, I’d argue that the Stars have incentive to be aggressive while they still have some bargain contracts. Dallas diverges a bit from Colorado in that the situation screams even more for additions sooner, rather than later.

While Benn and Seguin total close to $20M in cap space, other key Stars rank as bargains.

  • John Klingberg provides Norris-caliber defensive play for just $4.25M, and that cap hit runs through 2021-22.
  • Ben Bishop was otherworldly, and even if slippage is basically unavoidable, the 32-year-old clocks in at less than $5M per season through 2022-23. That may eventually be a problem (big goalies only tend to get hurt more as they age, not less), but he was probably worth $9M in 2018-19 alone.
  • Anton Khudobin was almost as impressive as Bishop, and with $2.5M for one more season, he buys the Stars some time to find a younger future goalie option, and also provides insulation from potential Bishop injuries.
  • Miro Heiskanen jumped almost instantly into heavy-usage as a rookie defenseman, and the Stars get the 19-year-old on his dirt-cheap rookie contract for two more seasons.
  • Roope Hintz looked like a budding star during the playoffs, and the power forward’s entry-level contract runs through 2019-20. That gives the Stars time to try to hash out an extension, and also time to figure out what he’s truly capable of.
  • Alexander Radulov has been fantastic for the Stars, and the 32-year-old’s $6.25M cap hit looks more than fair today. Maybe it will start to get dicey (it expires after 2021-22), but so far, so good.

That’s a fabulous foundation, and the Stars don’t have too many pressing contracts to deal with this summer, aside from finding the right price for RFA Esa Lindell. (Let me pause for embellishment jokes. Go ahead, get them out of your system.)

The Stars have a pretty nice mix of veterans and young guns, but they should make haste, because those veterans could hit the wall. Again, Bishop and Radulov are both 32, while Jamie Benn’s a rugged player who will turn 30 in July.

Age would linger as a question, in particular, if they bring back Zuccarello (31), Ben Lovejoy (35), and/or Roman Polak (33), considering that they already have Blake Comeau (33) and Andrew Cogliano (31) as veteran supporting cast members.

To me, this all points to an “add now” strategy. Maybe Phil Kessel would look good in green. It couldn’t hurt to see if Dallas is a big enough city for Artemi Panarin. And so on.

***

The Stars booted the Predators and gave the Blues all they could handle as constituted during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, so there’s an argument for allowing that roster to simply try to build on 2018-19.

Still, when I look at the structure of this team, I don’t necessarily see the system that, at times, leaned far too heavily on scoring just enough while Ben Bishop saved the day. Heiskanen and Klingberg give the Stars two outstanding (and cheap) defensemen who can play a modern game, and there were times when Seguin – Benn – Radulov looked like one of the league’s most dominant trios. As Hintz and others improve, this roster could also take some of the pressure off of Benn and Seguin.

In sports, you don’t always know how wide your window is going to be open, and I’d argue the Stars should go bold, rather than waiting. A Kessel, Panarin, Matt Duchene, P.K. Subban or perhaps a returning Zuccarello could give Dallas the extra push they need, to say, win those big, double-OT Game 7s.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Roundtable: Slowing the Hurricanes; players ready to shine

What is the biggest obstacle the Bruins face in slowing down the buzzsaw that is the Hurricanes?

SEAN: Getting shots through. The Hurricanes did a phenomenal job against the Islanders in limiting their chances, while at the same time making the most of out of their own. The Bruins averaged 36 shots on net against the Blue Jackets and certainly possess the offensive weapons to make Carolina’s defense and goaltenders stay busy. Boston dominated possession against Columbus, but we know how good the Hurricanes are at retaining possession at 5-on-5.

The Bruins will also have to worry about the secondary scoring Carolina has been coming up with. Through two rounds 11 different players have scored for the Hurricanes and when it’s not Sebastian Aho or Teuvo Teravainen stepping up, it’s Jordan Staal or Warren Foegele contributing.

JAMES: With Boston’s core aging, and not shockingly often injured, their biggest limitations are their bodies. Consider the Hurricanes the stack of bodies Jon Snow needed to navigate in a memorable “Game of Thrones” battle, then: even when hurt, Carolina can send waves and waves against the Bruins. Both teams have a lot going for them, but the physical toll may prove challenging for the Bruins.

ADAM: Getting through that Carolina defense. It has been an underrated and overlooked group for a couple of years now, mostly because the goaltending behind it always wasted it and the forwards in front of it weren’t good enough for it to matter. No longer the case this season! The Hurricanes finally have some finishers up front and enough goaltending to not squander their great defensive efforts. This has been one of the best shot-suppression teams in the league for four or five years now and they are keeping it going in the playoffs. They are just a tough group to get through. They can skate, they can more the puck, they are great at taking away passing lanes and shooting lanes, and they just do everything you want to see from a modern-day NHL defense group.

JOEY: I think the biggest challenge for Boston will be literally slowing down the Hurricanes. Carolina is arguably the quickest team the Bruins have faced in the first three rounds of postseason, so it might be a little challenging for them to adapt to their newest opponent. Unlike Toronto and Columbus, the Hurricanes don’t play a gritty style. As Rod Brind’Amour pointed out during their first-round series against Washington, Carolina isn’t interested in going toe-to-toe with their opponents. They’ll be aggressive on the forecheck, but they aren’t going to beat up the opponent physically. Handling that speed won’t be easy for the Bruins. 

SCOTT: The Pressure. No one has more puck possession in these playoffs that the Carolina Hurricanes. And the speed. And the shot suppression. The Bruins have the most 5-on-5 shots in these playoffs while the Hurricanes have limited teams to 225, the least among teams remaining. That comes back to the relentless pace the Rod Brind’Amour demands of his players, and it works. The Bruins need to be able to deal with that. They’re going to be facing the quickest team they’ve seen yet and need to find a way to move the puck quickly to get around the forecheck, one that knocked off the defending Stanley Cup champions and one that made mincemeat out of the New York Islanders.

RYAN: Stepping up in PNC Arena will be the Bruins’ biggest challenge. Carolina held Washington to just three goals over the Hurricanes’ three home games and they earned back-to-back 5-2 wins against the Islanders at home in Round 2. Of course, the Hurricanes will have to win a game in Boston for it to matter, but that’s far from an impossible task if Carolina’s defense and goaltending continues to perform as it has.

Are the Blues this season’s team of destiny considering where they were at the start of January?

SEAN: I think they’re the Western Conference version of the Hurricanes. Both teams took different routes to get the conference finals after spending the first half of the season near the bottom of the NHL. In fact, since January 3, the Blues (65) and Hurricanes (62) were two of the league’s top three point-getters, with the Tampa Bay Lightning sandwiched between them. They’re both great stories in their own way: The Blues turning things around after firing their head coach in November and Jordan Binnington playing incredible after making his debut in January, and then the Hurricanes with their “Storm Surges,” feud with Don Cherry, and phenomenal team that’s put them in yet another conference final. It would make for a superb Cup Final matchup if they can win four more games.

JAMES: I’d look at the Blues more as a sleeping giant awoken. We’ve seen teams fail to convert on possession dominance early in seasons, only to erupt when things start to come together. The Kings won two Stanley Cups and zero division titles that way. The Penguins seem to make a habit of it. Honestly, it was perplexing that St. Louis wasn’t putting it together earlier this season … until they did. And then some.

(Honestly, the Islanders were the team of destiny, in my opinion. The destination just happened to be Round 2.)

ADAM: They sure seem like it. Watching them play and watching the way they play gives off the same sort of vibe I got from watching the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings and the 2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins. Definitely not as dangerous offensively as that Penguins team, but just in the sense that they control the puck so well and just look so dominant at times when they have it. They just look like a really solid team from top to bottom, and the way they close out that Round 2 series against the Dallas Stars was impressive. They completely dominated Games 6 and 7, even though the latter needed double overtime. They were clearly the better team in that game from the opening puck drop.

JOEY: I don’t know about all that. Were the Golden Knights the team of destiny last year? It probably seemed that way heading into the Western Conference Final last year, but they eventually lost in the Stanley Cup Final. Don’t get me wrong, the Blues are the story of the season in my mind, but I don’t think they’re the team of destiny. Let’s just appreciate the work Craig Berube has done with this group. He totally revamped the way they play and turned them into a contender over night. 

SCOTT: By default, I suppose. Getting past Winnipeg in the manner they did was impressive, but I wasn’t sold on Dallas and they struggled at times in that series. That said, take nothing away from their ability to get the job done. When push came to shove in Games 6 and 7, the Blues showed a cohesiveness that most teams just don’t have because most teams don’t go through all the ebbs that the Blues did.

That camaraderie will serve them well in the Western Conference Final, but I don’t think it’s enough to skewer the Sharks. The Sharks have their own brew of team connectedness. The Sharks haven’t exactly had the easiest road to get to where they are, here they are. And they’re just more talented, with myriad options when it comes to who can take over a game. The Blues have been a great story, but this round is likely their final chapter.

RYAN: I think the Blues were a good team from the start that just took a while to get going. It certainly helped that Jordan Binnington came in and became a dominant force from January onward. I don’t see them as a team of destiny though. I see them as a team that was perhaps, due to their bad start, underrated, but not to the extent that I would pick them to win the Cup. Of course, they’ve gotten this far so anything is possible.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

What under-the-radar player will shine this round?

SEAN: Jaccob Slavin really shouldn’t be considered “under-the-radar” considering his body of work since entering the NHL, but maybe now that the spotlight is greater more eyes will be opened to just how good he is at both ends of the ice. He currently leads the Hurricanes in points with 11 assists, is well into the positives when it comes to possession (55 percent Corsi), and is among the top defensemen this postseason in allowing the fewest shots on goal per 60 minutes when he’s on the ice.

JAMES: When Jake DeBrusk isn’t tormenting Nazem Kadri into a lethal suspension, he’s seemingly hitting a post per game. DeBrusk has been limited to two goals and five points in 13 playoff games, but that’s on just 5 percent shooting (40 shots on goal). He strikes me as due, although to be fair, I also thought the same way about Jamie Benn, who then missed Game 7 overtime-winner by a breath, so DeBrusk might not want my seal of approval.

ADAM: Am going to go with Robert Thomas in St. Louis just because he was starting to take on a bit of a bigger role in Round 2 and was really making an impact. He was great in Game 7 and has four points and is a plus-five in his past five games. To win a Stanley Cup you sometimes need a young player like this to emerge in the playoffs, and he might be the one this year.

JOEY: Kevin Labanc failed to pick up a point in San Jose’s second-round series against Colorado. He’s an important part of the Sharks power play so it wasn’t surprising to that unit struggle against the Avs. I think the points will start coming for Labanc in the Western Conference Final. The Sharks are deep enough that he doesn’t have to be the focal point of their offense, but he should be able to chip in with some valuable secondary scoring against the Blues. 

SCOTT: I picked Oskar Sundqvist last round and that was a dud, so let’s go curse another player. Coming off an injury that’s cost him a lot of time, the return of Micheal Ferland could be a big boost for the Hurricanes. Ferland can make an impact offensively and he’s a massive threat physically, which is something the Hurricanes are going to have to contend with from the Bruisin’ Bruins. Assuming he’s back, and reports suggest he’s on track to start Game 1, Ferland can rattle the Bruins in more than one way.

RYAN: Kevin Labanc certainly isn’t seen as one of the Sharks’ stars and he wasn’t a major factor in Round 2. He had 56 points in the regular season though and is someone who can step up in the Western Conference Final.

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
Hurricanes/Bruins series preview

PHT Conference Finals predictions